WASHINGTON -- For decades, foreign armies that received U.S. assistance were on notice that toppling their freely elected civilian leaders would mean an aid suspension.
After Egypt, that seems no more, despite a law requiring just that if Washington determined a coup had taken place.
The Obama administration made a technically legal move to decide not to decide if the Egyptian military's ouster of the country's first democratically elected president was a "coup."
That's now created a wide opening to skirt legislation intended to support the rule of law, good governance and human rights around the world -- principles long deemed inviolable American values.
Previous U.S. administrations have endured criticism for appearing to pay them only lip service. But this new and unprecedented finding sends a confusing message that probably will resonate beyond Egypt to other fragile -- and perhaps not so fragile -- democracies where soldiers are unhappy with ballot box results or the policies of their elected commanders in chief.
"The law does not require us to make a formal determination ... as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday. She spoke in the administration's only on-camera news briefing a day after members of Congress were informed privately that the U.S. laws were no longer necessarily applicable.
That interpretation of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act might come as a surprise to juntas and militaries in Mali, Madagascar, Honduras and Pakistan. All of them, and others, have coped with U.S. aid suspensions over the past decade or so because of coups. In each case, there was a presumption that the United States would make a coup determination based on the law, and it did.
The law allows aid to resume only once a democratically elected government is restored. Exceptions have been made before, notably in the case of Pakistan.
Aid to Pakistan was suspended in 1999 when Army chief Pervez Musharraf ousted then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now back in the job, in a bloodless coup. The assistance was restored by an act of Congress in 2001 for national security reasons before democracy returned after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Psaki would or could not say why the administration had decided against such a solution in the case of Egypt, clearly a vital American ally in the Middle East.
But such a fix would have required a determination that the Egyptian army had ousted President Mohammed Morsi in a coup, and that step would have triggered a suspension in the $1.5 billion in aid the U.S. provides each year. Of that, $1.3 billion goes to the military.
Conversely, a determination that a coup had not occurred would have flown in the face of the uncontested facts that the army removed Morsi from power and detained him incommunicado in an undisclosed location for weeks.
There is little to dispute in White House, State Department and Pentagon pronouncements that the situation in Egypt is complex and difficult. Amid the bloody violence that erupted Saturday in Cairo and Alexandria -- at least 65 protesters were killed -- Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the U.S. call for Egyptian authorities to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, calling them "essential components of the inclusive democratic process they have publicly embraced."
Yet the administration's decision to selectively apply what had been a hallmark of U.S. support for democracy would seem to raise questions about its stated unwavering commitment to that ideal around the globe.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Matthew Lee covers the State Department and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.